Originally created 07/13/97

Woods faces tough test at Open



TROON, Scotland -The Royal Troon Golf Course has been good to Americans, producing winners from the west side of the Atlantic the last four times the British Open was played there.

While that sounds good for Tiger Woods and defending champion Tom Lehman, the 126th Open beginning Thursday also comes at a time when many of the top players in the world are at peak form.

Contenders are everywhere and from every corner of the globe.

Three-time British Open winner Nick Faldo of England, the two-time winner from Australia, Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, a hot golfer with the home-course advantage, all come in playing well.

No one has been hotter than U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa. And Nick Price of Zimbabwe, Bernhard Langer of Germany and Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal all seem to have their games back.

Throw in Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, New Zealander Frank Nobilo and Costantino Rocca of Italy and the chances of an American winning the world's oldest golf tournament for the third consecutive year seem remote.

Yet Woods, who has won six times on the PGA Tour in only 21 tournaments as a professional - including a stunning 12-stroke victory at the Masters - is at the top of many lists.

"You've got to look at both Tiger and Ernie," Nobilo said. "The one thing that the British Open has always seemed to bring forward is the best player that year seems to have won it on so many occasions."

Besides playing well, Woods and Els also have the length and touch needed to win at Troon, stretched along the west coast of Scotland on the Irish Sea.

One long-hitter and former Open champion who will not contend is John Daly. Still struggling with the aftermath of a relapse into alcoholism, Daly officially withdrew a week before the tournament.

Woods, who has said his 66 in the second round of the British Open at Royal Lytham last year convinced him he was good enough to turn pro, has proven he can handle the hard, fast links where shots can't be fired at the flags but must be delicately encouraged to bound near the hole.

"I thoroughly enjoy links golf," Woods said last week while winning the Western Open, his last tune-up before the Open. "I think that's the ultimate golf just because you get to use your imagination for once."

The first three holes at Royal Troon are par-4s measuring less than 400 yards. With the prevailing wind at his back, Woods can drive the holes. But British courses are fraught with dangers not measured in yards.

Gauging the placement of the pot bunkers is something Woods can control. The weather is something he will have to endure.

"If we have four days of very strong wind, the scores are going to be high," Price said.

"As I understand, the rough is like four or five inches toward the edge of the fairway because they put that new double sprinkler system in. It's a real links golf course, the front nine going out with the wind and the back nine coming back into it."

The back side also is the longer of the two nines, with all six par-4s measuring over 430 yards and a 223-yard par-3 at No. 17 that plays into the wind.

"The secret to playing well on that course is to post a score going out and hold it together coming back," said Price, who played the last six holes of the 1982 Open at Troon 4-over par and finished one stroke behind winner Tom Watson.

Mark Calcavecchia won at Troon in 1989, defeating Norman and Wayne Grady in the first playoff using the four-hole format.

Norman started the final round with six consecutive birdies and shot a course-record 64. But he lost his chance to win when he drove into a pot bunker more than 300 yards out on No. 18 - the final playoff hole - hit into another bunker, then picked up after hitting a ball out of bounds.

Watson won at Troon in 1982 when the 25-year-old Price stumbled. Tom Weiskopf won in 1973 and Arnold Palmer started the American domination of Troon with a victory in 1962.

South African Bobby Locke won at Troon in 1950 and Briton Arthur Havers won the first Open played there in 1923.

Montgomerie stands with Els as the main obstacles to a second major championship for Woods. The 34-year-old Scotsman will try to win his first major championship at the course where his father, James, is the secretary. And he is coming off his best effort of the year - a closing 62 to win the Irish Open.

"I've been playing well since early May," said Montgomerie, who had another near-miss at the U.S. Open, where he finished second. "I'm obviously very confident in what I am doing. Everything is just right going into a very important part of the year."